The “heart-stopping story” of the Cuban Missile Crisis has been “told many times before”, said Saul David in The Daily Telegraph. But never has it been told with such “narrative verve and panache” as in Max Hastings’s superb new history. The crisis began on the morning of 16 October 1962, when a national security adviser interrupted John F. Kennedy, still “in his pyjamas”, to tell him that the CIA had “hard photographic evidence” that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear weapons on Cuba.
Over the next 13 days, the “world teetered on the brink of nuclear catastrophe”, as Kennedy and his advisers tried to force the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to withdraw the missiles. Kennedy’s military chiefs urged him to invade (or at least bomb) Cuba – a course that could well have prompted nuclear retaliation – but Kennedy opted for the less inflammatory course of imposing a naval blockade on the island. Knowing that his nuclear arsenal was “heavily outgunned” by the Americans’, Khrushchev eventually concluded that the “missiles had to go”. Some have claimed that the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis proves the soundness of nuclear deterrence theory, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times.
Hastings dismantles this “cosy” notion, deploying his “investigative skills” to demonstrate how precarious the situation was. On both sides, there were powerful escalatory voices – from Cuba’s dictator, Fidel Castro, who called Khruschev “un maricón” (a faggot) for refusing to launch a strike, to General Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the US air force, who argued that the death of 400 million people worldwide would be “an acceptable price if communism was eradicated”. Somehow, Kennedy “found a course through a morass of madness and bellicosity” by offering Khrushchev a face-saving deal: in return for the Soviet warheads being removed, the US would remove its own missiles from Turkey. “A solution was found because a few men acted rationally, but that’s no affirmation of deterrence.” And that is especially true because whatever the politicians decide, there’s always the risk of “one stressed-out individual panicking”, said Tony Rennell in the Daily Mail. Hastings reminds us that in the heat of the 1962 crisis, an “exhausted” Soviet submarine captain very nearly “pressed his button” after becoming convinced that war had broken out. Published against the background of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this “brilliantly told” tale has a “disturbing topicality”, said Victor Sebestyen in The Sunday Times. According to Hastings, the risks “have multiplied since 1962”. We may have “got lucky” then – but there’s no guarantee that we will next time.